President Donald Trump’s declaration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is considered, quite justly, a significant achievement for Israeli diplomacy. But more than that, it’s the result of a particularly successful campaign by evangelical Christians in the United States. As much as it was a gift to Israel, the proclamation was even more of a gift from Trump to his pious voters in the Bible Belt of the American South and Midwest. Five-hundred years after the Reformation, Trump has presented his Protestant supporters with a bonanza: In Washington he founded the Zionist-Protestant kingdom of Jerusalem.
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The president’s declaration is one of the peaks of the Protestant mission to realize the vision of the “return to Zion” – with the aid of the Jews. But this story has earlier chapters. True, Martin Luther himself did not attach importance to returning to the Holy Land. He argued that Christian believers should read symbolically the Hebrew Bible verses concerning Zion or to Mount Zion.
“For by Zion, we are not to understand the wood and stones of Zion, but those who inhabit Zion,” Luther wrote, adding, “For if you understand by Zion the material Zion, it is all over with us gentiles, because we do not possess this mountain now, it is in the hands of the wicked Hagarenes [descendants of Hagar, namely the Muslims]” (translation by Rev. Henry Cole, 1826). From Luther’s perspective, the earthly Jerusalem held no true importance. But his call to return to the Scriptures nonetheless led ultimately to Protestant interest in the Holy Land, and in the Jews’ return to it. To achieve this, all that was needed was to expel the “Hagarenes.”
When Gen. Edmund Allenby conquered Jerusalem 100 years ago, in December 1917, the London newspapers celebrated the British Empire’s historical achievement. Journalists and public figures emphasized repeatedly that, for the first time since the fall of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, the holy city was once more in Christian hands. Allenby’s military campaign was dubbed the “Last Crusade,” and accounts of his soldiers characterized them as “Crusaders in khaki.” Britain viewed Palestine as a strategic territory on the way to India, but at the same time attributed historical and theological meaning to the mandate it was given there, and to the Balfour Declaration. The medieval image of the Crusades was intermingled with a biblical fantasy about the return of the Jews to the land of the patriarchs. Protestants were in power in the Holy Land for the first time, and they were to fulfill their powerful faith in the form of the Jews’ return to the setting of the Bible.
Protestant Britain was differentiated from France and other Catholic and Eastern Orthodox nations by its close affinity to the Bible. The Catholic Church was opposed to the Jewish people’s return to its land – that would constitute a revolt against the punishment inflicted on the Jews for rejecting Jesus. For the Protestant nations, in contrast, what they called the Old Testament played an important role in their foreign policy. The first British attempts to bring the Jews back to their land stemmed from Christian faith. Lord Shaftesbury, a 19th-century British politician and reformer, wanted the Jews to return in order to fulfill the Pauline prophecy and hasten the Second Coming of the Christian messiah. As an interim goal, he established an Anglican bishopric in Jerusalem, in order to found an “Anglican Israel” in the Holy Land.
Arthur James Balfour, too, was a pious reader of the Bible and an ardent admirer of Judaism. The Bible, more than imperial politics, drove his policy as foreign secretary. In her 2015 book “The Global History of the Balfour Declaration: Declared Nation,” Maryanne Rhett asserts that His Majesty’s Government was quick to express support for the Zionist movement out of fear that the German emperor would preempt it, and thereby seize the role of Protestant patron of the Jewish people. This is a historical irony: In another constellation, the Germans might have declared the Jews’ right to a national home, and streets in Israeli cities would now be named for the Emperor Wilhelm.
Many liberal Jews are shocked by the alliance of Israel’s right-wing government with evangelicals, who aspire to Jesus’ return and the Christianization of the Jews. But the State of Israel would not have been established without the support of Christian Zionists. Of course, British policy was not guided solely by the desire to realize biblical prophecy. Political and economic considerations also played a part, and some of them were actually detrimental to the Zionist movement. In fact, during the Mandatory period, the British leadership gradually disengaged from its Crusader-evangelist mission. But within a few decades, the Protestant presidents of the United States took on for their country the role of the people that chooses to confer its patronage on the chosen people. Like many of their country, many presidents had imbibed philo-Semitism with their mother’s milk. Bill Clinton described this explicitly, when he related how his priest in Arkansas had made him vow never to abandon Israel.
‘Land of dialogue’
Of the whole gamut of responses to Trump’s declaration, one is of special interest: that of Pope Francis. Like his predecessors, Francis, too, occasionally expresses concern about the infringement of the Palestinians’ rights or violent flare-ups in the region. However, his reaction to the president’s speech bore an additional layer, related to the status of the Holy Land. “The Holy Land is for us Christians the land par excellence of dialogue between God and mankind,” he stated, and called on all sides to respect the status quo in Jerusalem.
The Vatican, of course, has claims of its own in the Holy Land. Exactly 800 years ago, in 1217, even before the fall of the Crusader Kingdom, the pope granted the Franciscan order custodianship of the land. The Franciscans are also entrusted with the task of preserving the status quo that exists between the Christian communities in the country’s holy places. Consequently, any change in the status of Jerusalem is fraught with theological implications.
In the end, the Crusaders who came to the East in the Fourth Crusade, at the beginning of the 13th century, fought against the Byzantine kingdom and the Eastern church. They burned and looted Constantinople (in 1204), an act for which the Greek Orthodox Church has not forgiven the Catholic Church to this day. However, in light of Trump’s Protestant crusade, it is the Catholic Church that feels threatened.
What’s unmistakable is that Trump’s declaration exposed the true essence of the Zionist project in 2017. Zionism today is far more than a Jewish national movement. It’s a worldwide ideology, closely intertwined with two trends: Christian fundamentalism and the war against Islam. The Jews are, all told, allies in that war; in practice, what maintains the Zionist kingdom in the Holy Land is the active support of tens of millions of pious Christians. They are the true landlords. And, as such, they determine the rent.